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THAILAND: Malay-Muslims Complain in Court of Torture

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 30 2009 (IPS) - A year after they were allegedly subjected to torture by the Thai army, two young men from the country’s troubled southern provinces have done what no other victim of similar abuse in the area has dared to do – go to court.

The torture charges filed against the army and the defence ministry, this month, by Issamae Tae and Armese Manark mark a new trend for local communities to expose human rights violations in the south, home to Buddhist Thailand’s largest minority, the Malay-Muslims.

Issamae and Armese were taken into military custody from their homes in the Yala province on Jan. 28 last year and detained until Feb. 4. During seven days of interrogation, the two university students were allegedly beaten and tortured on suspicion of links to an unfolding insurgency, now entering its sixth year in the three provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

The road to justice for the two men, both aged 23, will not be through the criminal courts, since local laws do not include torture as a criminal offence – though Thailand ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture in November 2007. The men have opted to approach the civil courts, through which they can claim compensation.

This legal challenge aims to set a precedent to fix responsibility on army personnel and authorities involved in acts of torture, notes the Cross Cultural Foundation (CCF), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) monitoring rights violations.

Issamae told the Bangkok civil court on the first day’s hearings that he was taken from his home by paramilitary operatives belonging to the Rangers Task Force 11 and detained at the Ingkharayuthboriham army camp in Pattani province.

He said he was repeatedly beaten with a stick wrapped with cloth until he passed out. His captors would pour cold water on him to revive him, a Thai newspaper covering the court proceedings reports. They wanted him to confess to being part of an insurgency in the region.

These victims face added risks for filing the case. Lower-ranking army officers may find this offensive; there will be tension, Pornpen Khongkachonkieat, coordinator of CCF’s access to justice and legal protection project, told IPS. ‘’We hope the authorities in the south respect the right for a call to justice within the legal system.’’

Human rights activists expect that other victims of torture in the three provinces close to the Thai-Malaysian border may be inspired to follow this legal route as they gather confidence to speak out and report flagrant abuse at the hands of the Thai security troops – nearly 110,000 of whom are deployed in the troubled region.

In fact, the determination by the victims to speak out is helping human rights groups to expose the scale of torture in the south, where over 3,200 people have been killed since the conflict – pitting the Thai security forces against and Malay-Muslim insurgents – began in January 2004.

Most of those who died were Malay-Muslims, the majority in the three provinces.

''From mid-2007 to mid-2008 reports of torture in the south had reached a peak,'' Benjamin Zawacki, a Thai researcher for Amnesty International (AI), said in an interview.

Some of those finding were revealed in an AI report released in mid-January. Thai security forces have systematically relied on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in their efforts to obtain information or extract confessions to compensate for poor intelligence and evidence gathering, revealed the report, ‘Thailand: Torture In The Southern Counter-insurgency’.

Several Muslim residents of southern Thailand told AI that they or other victims were detained by joint military-police forces, pursuant to the Thai military’s Battle Plan for the Protection of Southern Lands announced in June 2007, added the 41-page report.

The plan has been characterised by arrests of large numbers of suspects under the powers of preventive detention conferred on the security forces by the Martial Law Act and the 2005 Emergency Decree.

What happened to a farmer taken into custody in Narathiwat was typical of the torment endured by the 34 torture victims that AI focused in its report on – the youngest a boy of six. The soldiers stuck a sewing needle into the farmer’s fingertips, under his eyes and into his genitals.

Residents from the south and human rights activists told IPS in interviews that there may be as many as 20 detention sites across the region where a suspect could be held for weeks.

In some cases, the detainees were moved from one site to another for the authorities to get around the law and keep detainees in custody longer, one activist said on condition of anonymity.

''The lack of clarity in the Thai law has compounded the problem,'' says Vitit Muntarbhorn, a human rights expert at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Courts cannot accept evidence obtained through torture, he notes but Thai law is slightly vague on confessions.

The current conflict in the south, which is still a low-level insurgency, is rooted in tensions that grew after Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the three southern provinces in 1902. Until then the three provinces were part of the Malay-Muslim kingdom of Pattani.

Malay-Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural and linguistic discrimination and, later, economic marginalisation, giving rise to the first generation of rebels, who mounted a separatist campaign in the 1970s.

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